DEADLY SLIDE PROMPTS SAFETY PROBE
By Karen Aho And Natalie Phillips, AND 4/17/99
State officials were in Cordova on Friday to investigate whether proper safety precautions were taken at a hydroelectric construction site where an avalanche killed a worker.
Gary Stone, 46, was running a backhoe Thursday in a steep canyon seven miles northeast of town when a load of snow slid down the 2,000-foot slope. The snow buried the heavy equipment and knocked Stone out of the cab. It also destroyed a temporary log bridge used to ferry gravel and supplies.
Stone's body has not been found. Co-workers and rescuers were called off the scene Thursday afternoon when three successive slides sent them running for safety. Authorities suspended operations at the plant Friday and Alaska State Troopers sealed the area, fire marshal Bob Plumb said.
Troopers, Cordova police and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration began interviewing workers Friday about prior conditions at the site.
"We're going to look into this. We're going to find out what people knew about this prior to" Thursday's avalanche, said trooper 1st Sgt. Paul Burke, who called it the most dangerous avalanche zone he has ever seen.
Mike Russell, assistant chief of enforcement for OSHA, said the agency is looking into an avalanche report prepared in March for the company in charge of the project. Whitewater Engineering, a Bellingham, Wash., firm with experience in Southeast Alaska, had hired Anchorage-based avalanche forecaster Dave Hamre to do the study.
In a March 8 letter to Whitewater preceding the final report, Hamre warned that the site had a high risk for avalanches and suggested reducing worker hours and hiring an avalanche prevention specialist. Hamre noted that Whitewater wanted to run two shifts.
Workers have said about a dozen employees were at the site in recent weeks.
Company executives, who arrived in Cordova on Friday, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Hamre would not discuss the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily News.
The letter details that snow would most likely slide for 2,000 feet and collect in a deep pile in the narrow canyon at Ohman Falls, where construction was under way.
Steep terrain in the area, fresh avalanche deposits downstream and sheered trees in the region all point to high avalanche danger, Hamre wrote.
An avalanche there would lead to "unsurvivable burial for anyone caught," he wrote, concluding that "without any mitigation, your exposure is very high."
Thomas Stahr, interim manager for Cordova Electric Cooperative, which hired Whitewater to build the hydroelectric project, said Hamre's report initiated some worker training, though he didn't know specifics.
"They did have avalanche watches most of the time," Stahr said. "From time to time, they cleared everyone out of the site. Why it didn't happen this particular day, I don't know."
Greg Lawson, another backhoe operator on the project, said an avalanche expert had visited the site and told workers what to watch out for.
"He explained high-risk avalanche days – when heavy wet snow, rain comes down, stay out of there," Lawson said Friday. "And (Thursday) was a high-risk day.
"We shouldn't have been there."
More snow than normal fell in the mountains around Cordova this winter. It rained Wednesday night and into Thursday. The two make for a stratified snowpack with a heavier top layer that's prone to slough off.
Kevin Quinn, co-owner of Points North Helicopter Service in Cordova, said he once offered to do avalanche evaluation for Whitewater but the company never took him up on it. Shortly after Hamre's report, Whitewater asked if he would fly workers to the ridge above so they could lob explosives at the cornice.
"I said until you have your permits, I am not going to do that," Quinn recalled. "I never heard from them again."
On April 1, Whitewater applied to the U.S. Forest Service office in Cordova for a permit to use aerial explosives to control avalanches, district ranger Cal Baker said. They received the permit April 8.
It was not clear Friday whether the company ever used the permit.
Stahr said he was not aware that the contractor had gotten a permit to use explosives to try to reduce avalanche risk.
"I believe the contractor did do some things," Stahr said. "In hindsight, it doesn't look like he did enough."